Article: Shadowrun – A defence

It’s difficult to try new ideas, to try to bond disparate methods into one cohesive whole. So many times they’re doomed to failure before they even begin, as anyone who’s ever tried a chocolate and tuna sandwich can attest to. But when they work, when the distillation of two separate parts is in perfect harmony, then you’ve got something special. By popular consensus, both commercial and critical, Shadowrun is not one of those combinations. It tried a variety of new ideas, and had the noblest of intentions in many ways but just failed to deliver. It never even managed that jump to cult phenomenon like so many under-selling gems such as Beyond Good and Evil and American McGee’s Alice. Yet here I stand, one of the lone few who revel in Shadowrun as a unique and enjoyable take on the stagnant FPS genre, against the onslaught of criticism, and the important thing which I have to stress here is that I’m right! And I’m going to tell you why.

Shadowrun never had it easy: the sheer principle would prove to be problematic on a whole host of levels, many of which continued to dog the game long past its release. The Shadowrun brand itself, although essential to the game, placed the developers, FASA, in a difficult situation. It was well-established, with a small but devoted following but it was very much a niche brand. This meant the game was unable to use it to successfully infiltrate the mainstream consciousness as the mainstream was completely unconscious of it. On the flipside of the this was the small cult following that the pen & paper RPG had built up who had expectations of what any game baring the Shadowrun moniker should be. Basically, not an FPS. The game was already an RPG, with an in-depth and tactical system and the traditional devoted crowd bemoaned the dumbing down of its beloved brand into an FPS ‘for the masses.’ And when it comes to ‘core’ gamers, opinions like this can spread like wildfire over the internet, and the worst thing in the eyes of that particular group is the dilution of the essence of old-school videogames to keep the mainstream happy. Essentially from the word go, it was not guaranteed any support from either camp.

But still a good game can win over many of the sceptics, but upon release the response to Shadowrun was lukewarm at best. One huge criticism stemmed from an area which had the potential to really set the game apart: it’s PC/console platform linkup. Shadowrun allowed Xbox 360 players to play against PC players, a move that has yet to be repeated by another game, and while many championed the attempt to bring two historically antagonistic FPS groups together, the old antagonisms reared their ugly head just the same. Console players weren’t happy with the lack of an aim-down sights, something that only Halo is still managing to persevere with in the current climate, but more importantly PC players complained that the targeting system favoured console players with it’s semi-automatic aim lock-on. While it did allow this, it was a fine-tuning balancing act because of the less-responsive nature of a controller, which is something that will always be a problem for console and PC connectivity, and to be honest until that issue gets addressed I really can’t think of a better way to do it, although obviously I’m not a designer. The cross-platform functionality was fundamentally flawed for one main reason; something that was not the fault of either FASA or their game. In order to play on the PC you need to have Games for Windows Live. All arguments about the current state of the platform aside, in 2007 it was a mess, and almost no serious PC player would use it. So that takes away a huge potential customer base and also destroys one of the game’s main potential selling points.

There was also criticism of the lack of variety. Well yes in a very strict sense I suppose that’s true. There was only three game types, and nowhere near enough maps, plus at only 8 the weapon count is significantly down on games like Call of Duty or Halo. Let’s be honest though, how many of the guns on a game like COD do you actually use. Personally on Black Ops I stick fairly religiously to the Commando and occasional sniper rifle because that’s what I’m comfortable with. Not only does this make the others redundant but it makes me judge them relative to my norm, and often somewhat unreasonably. Case in point, on Black Ops I hate the FAMAS. Using that inaccurate hose-pipe of a gun I couldn’t hit a barn-door, but it’s a tried and true favourite of several of my friends for its accuracy. The difference is probably negligible, but it enforces huge stereotypes that discourage experimentation because people are comfortable with what they know. And with the exception of the majestic Borderlands, can anyone name a single game which has been made better just by the addition of more guns? Thought not. But despite all this there is variety in Shadowrun, it just doesn’t come from traditional sources.

My love for Shadowrun can be explained by a multitude of reasons, but the crux of it can be summed up by one simple idea. In other shooters of that period, and even now to a large extent, if you were caught out you were dead. In COD, a murderous rampage can be cut short simply because you happened to walk past a doorway 2 seconds too early. That’s it: you’re just dead, through no fault of your own, through no skill of your enemy, through nothing but blind luck. In Shadowrun if someone catches you from behind you can use a swift blast of wind to gust them away and mess up their accuracy, before teleporting through the floor to end up behind them and finally cutting them in the back with a katana and watching with glee as they gradually bleed out. What other game lets you do that?! In many ways the games various magical and technological abilities were precedents for Call of Duty’s perks, but active rather than passive. In essence this was the first console shooter with a customisable load-out system, and it was far in advance of anything else around; still is to this day in many ways. This was the variety. You fought in completely new ways, using completely new tactics with combinations that people hadn’t even considered. This was the variety that gamers craved, but no-one saw it because there’s only one type of SMG so clearly there’s no variety. Well maybe there was only one kind of SMG compared to the 6 in Call of Duty; but Call of Duty didn’t let you summon a demon to chase your enemies around while you pick them off with a high calibre sniper rifle.

The variety was there, just in ways that people didn’t expect to see, and so didn’t look for. And the innovation was completely lost on them. The cross-platform functionality didn’t work properly, that was true, but so many of the other new ideas did. Most importantly, the technologies and magics effected not just how you fought the enemy, but how you managed and traversed the terrain, how you co-operated with team-mates and how you balanced the risk-reward of different possibilities. And under it all, as any review you can find will tell you was a fundamentally well-made FPS with all the right check-marks one would hope to find in all the right boxes.

Maybe it tried too much, maybe it didn’t try enough, maybe both of these are true in different areas. However, for some reason the enjoyment I got out of the game wasn’t found by others. It didn’t help that the vast array of play-styles and abilities were baffling to newcomers. Several of my friends who started after my recommendation couldn’t get into it because after six months or so, there was only the devoted few left who had already perfected the games intricacies, providing the steepest learning curve. The lack of a single player campaign as a training ground damaged it here, as it probably did in many other ways too. Indeed I can certainly see some strength in the argument that it maybe should have been released at a lower price point. But none of these are to do with how good a game is to play. Sure you can forgive more for a lower price point, and expect more for a higher one, but fundamentally a good game is a good game. And Shadowrun is a good game, maybe even a great one, but you need to approach it in the right way. It’s not like Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield or any other FPS. It tried something new, but more than that it managed to create a gameplay experience unlike any other available at the time. Perhaps so much so that it was destined to be left out in the cold, and doubtless it was edged closer to the door by a lack of support across numerous fronts, and technical difficulties that were always going to be hard to avoid. So out in the cold it seems destined to remain, and barely any of the spawn-campers in Black Ops will care. Still it’s a shame, because I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again, and every time a new approach fails, it’s another nail for the coffin of creativity. I for one am not looking forward to that funeral.

    • Kevin
    • January 13th, 2011

    Nice article, Yes, you are right, the game did try
    something new and was a success in some areas. I was one of those
    people who tried it on a friends recommendation and got so hacked
    off with the ridiculously steep learning curve that I lost
    interest. Don’t get me wrong, I could see what it was trying to do
    and it was very clever but it just wasn’t accessible enough for the
    average gamer. That was the games undoing in my humble

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